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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Suspect Zero (review)

Dead Wrong

It’s a good thing we’re not as beset with actual serial killers as we are with serial-killer movies — we’d be knee-deep in bodies 24/7. These modern-day bogeymen turn up so often in the multiplex that they’re almost instantly a joke, a cliché that even the stereotypically haunted law-enforcement types chasing them onscreen should be able to recognize and easily deflate: The bad guy is really after you, pal, so how hard could it be to lure him into a trap? We’d be left with twenty-minute movies if that happened, of course, and so the cat-and-mouse game gets drawn out to two excruciatingly predictable hours. (Full disclosure: As an aspiring screenwriter, I of course have my own serial-killer script ready and waiting for some producer to recognize its unique and not at all clichéd genius.)
You wouldn’t think there’d be much left to say about cinematic serial killers and the cops they love to taunt, so it’s bonus points to Suspect Zero for even attempting to find something new in this, pardon the pun, done-to-death genre. That’s not to suggest that this isn’t rather an awful film. At first it seems to be advancing itself as a cure for insomnia, with its plodding portentousness, all extreme closeups on eyes — seeing, it seems, will be an Important Theme, clues and horrors and such seen and unseen — stuffed among the slow-moving and thoroughly inscrutable plot points of unrelated murders and FBI procedure. “I’m sort of a stickler for procedure,” says Agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart: Paycheck, The Missing) to his new boss — Mackelway, some sort of rogue, as these guys tend to be in movies like this, has been newly exiled to the backwater of Albuquerque. “I imagine you would be,” replies his new boss, clearly as bored as we are, since Mackelway’s “procedure” tends to have more to do with reading memos and faxes than the cool-gross kind of procedure that the CSI people are concerned with. Mackelway is positively plagued with paper: faxes come shooting out of fax machines at him, gibes, apparently, from the latest psycho killer Mackelway is hounding and being hounded by. And that’s when Zero starts to seem as if it’s parodying, if unintentionally, overwrought crime thrillers, fixating maniacally on the tics and obsessions of this particular beset FBI agent, who pops aspirin like candy and thinks he’s being watched.

He is being watched, of course, and this is where Suspect Zero gets interesting, if not exactly good. The faxes and the eerie watching are courtesy of Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley: Thunderbirds, House of Sand and Fog), a decidedly unsexy beast who may or may not be Mackelway’s killer. What he is is a special kind of psychic/clairvoyant able to “remote view” — that is, to see things at a distance — and he’s either helping Mackelway unravel the mystery of the theoretical “suspect zero,” “a random killing machine who doesn’t leave a clue,” or O’Ryan is suspect zero himself.

But none of that is what makes the film interesting. The script, Zak Penn (X2: X-Men United, Behind Enemy Lines) and Billy Ray (Hart’s War), is an absolute mess — it doesn’t mean to be inscrutable, naturally, but if it’s possible to craft a story from randomness, about a character who does random things for no reason at all, this ain’t it: Fiction is, be definition, not random; there has to be point to it, even if the point is nothing greater than telling a satisfying tale. There’s little satisfaction to be found here on a story level. But director E. Elias Merhige — whose 2000 flick Shadow of the Vampire is a triumph of sublime cunning — took that mess of a script and aimed for something highly ambitious: a shorthand sketch, a deliberate abstraction of an entire genre of film. The film takes plot shortcuts over ground we should all be able to fill in by now, if we’ve seen even a few of these serial-killer flicks, and gets downright abstract in places, especially where it concerns itself — which is for a great deal of its running time — with the psychological effect thinking like a serial killer has upon those trying to stop him.

The film fails miserably in this attempt, not for the least which reason is that its most intriguing idea — “suspect zero” — is an afterthought, and Merhige seems to realize it, focusing instead on his crimefighter (Eckhart, in bursts of reckless energy, is excellent). But Suspect Zero is by far the most fascinating failure of the year so far. A convoluted disaster it may be, but it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before either, and assumes a sense of adventure and intelligence on the audience’s part that is all too rare at the multiplex.


MPAA: rated R for violent content, language and some nudity

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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